As the sun peeks out from the morning clouds in Santa Monica, California, Malea reflects back on her life. “I guess I’m a mixture of a lot of things—a lot of different influences. I was born in a small town in Texas, studied music formally in New York, but have ultimately made my home here in L.A.. I’m not exactly sure what that makes me!” says Malea.
Malea’s eclectic background explains a lot. Her talent, drive, and love of music have taken her all over the musical spectrum: part opera songstress, part singer-songwriter, part pop musician, part EDM sensation.
“We are divine beings here for an earthly, human experience, not human beings searching for divine existence.”
Born in Killeen, Texas, Malea is the daughter of an Irish Green Beret father and a Korean mother. Among other facts, she is a direct descendant of the great Korean poet Hwang Jin-i (1520-1560). She spent two and a half years in Seoul, Korea with relatives. Then at the age of five, she was sent to live with her grandfather and stepmother in Long Island, New York.
“I always loved to sing, but my grandparents kept telling me to be quiet,” she laughs. “When I was young, I always used to perform in the backyard but I never dreamt of doing this for a living. I wanted to be a school teacher.”
After attending rigorous music programs at Tanglewood, Oberlin Conservatory and the Chautauqua Institution, Malea went on to pursue singing opera professionally at the Manhattan School of Music. Eventually the years of hard work paid off and landed her in a featured role in the Broadway revival of “The King and I”. As notable as this early success was, Malea had other dreams and aspirations.
She soon headed west to Los Angeles to pursue her real creative dream: to live and perform as a singer-songwriter. “I can’t really say it was a reinvention as much as an unveiling. I had to let a lot of things go from my past to find my real voice. I guess that’s always been a theme with me.”
Although an accomplished singer and stage actor, to make this new chapter work, she had to teach herself guitar and get to know the local club circuit. This meant a lot of gigs, and lot of work. Even bar-tending to support herself. It wasn’t long before the songs started flowing and she was able to attract some attention from local audiences and producers.
“It’s about having faith in something you can’t necessarily see or touch,” Malea points out, “a higher calling, a higher being… Which is ironic because the first song I started to write when I came out to L.A. was ‘Close As Air.’ I never realized who it was about until I finished.” The song can be found on the album of the same title, produced by Jamie Candiloro who was also working with Ryan Adams at the time. Adams actually plays guitar on several of the tracks on the “Close As Air” album (although uncredited).
Before long she was in the studio with Jim Scott producing her follow up album “Sweet”. Jim is a music industry legend engineering and producing for Tom Petty, Wilco, Foo Fighters, and others. Malea learned a lot the experience. It was Jim who suggested tracking Malea live with her touring band. “We had 10 days of recording, but Jim knows how to bring the best in every musician.”
More releases followed and things started to take off at radio. This opened up the way for Malea to pursue larger shows opening for some of her personal idols. People like Liz Phair, Shawn Colvin and Train. This period culminated with her appearance in front of ten thousand people at Summerfest in Milwaukee opening up for Counting Crows.
By the mid 2010’s, new ideas were in the wind and new directions were taken. She decided to shorten her name to just Malea and expand her sound into lusher synth driven pop and ultimately to full on EDM tracks.
“It was something I really wanted to try. That music has such a purity and drive about it. I decided to take a gamble see what I could do within that style,” Malea explains. The result was a #1 hit on Billboard’s Club Dance chart with “One Hot Mess”. Another track, “Give”, peaked at #14 and stayed on the chart for ten weeks. Tearce Kizzo, who has previously crafted hits for such artists as Sting, Afrojack, Pitbull and Ne-Yo, produced.
“The success of ‘One Hot Mess’ and ‘Give’ was kind of surprising. I really loved being a part of that project. Although It was a lot of fun, ultimately I guess I missed my singer-songwriting roots”.
A series of releases soon followed that managed to combine solid personal songwriting with a more modern and lush production style (“You’ll Never Fix My Heart”, “Earth Angel”, “Come To Me” and “You Are Loved”).
Which brings us to Malea’s current release “Swept Away”, co-written and produced by Daniel Johnson.
The pair worked together in Johnson’s studio earlier this year. It was a great opportunity for Malea to focus on great songs and reaffirming the relationship with her first instrument – her voice.
“It was important to me to create a musical my voice a place where it could really shine the way I wanted. You can hear that in the operatic style we used on ‘Swept Away’. Daniel was so supportive and inspired me to try new things”
The album features four tracks, each of which tells a more intimate story of her journey.
“Hard To Let You Go” describes how hard it can be letting go of someone who’s not good for you. “It’s something I hear about again and again from people in my life. We forget how hard this kind of struggle can be for some people, ” Malea notes.
“Swept Away” is an ode to living in the moment, letting go, letting life wash over you. It’s the kind of soothing tonic we all need in our hectic lives these days.
“What I Wouldn’t Do” is an ode to her daughter. It reminds us there are loves in our lives greater than ourselves.
“Immortal” is about facing the loss of many people in the past few years. “I take comfort in realizing they have just shed their earthly skin—but their essence lives on. We are divine beings here for an earthly, human experience, not human beings searching for divine existence.”